21 June, 2024


Power, Wealth & Status Without Morality: A Modern Curse

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

At this juncture, there is much discussion and reflection about the way politicians, particularly those affiliated with main parties, are campaigning to gain power at the forthcoming election in order to elect a President. Some references are also made about the way power was exercised by those who held it during the last ten years or so. Such discussions are aimed at garnering support for one’s party or criticising the opponents. While such discussions and comments are more focused on the contemporary context and to some extent the future possibilities, it is important to pay attention to the concept of power on one hand and why some individuals seek power through elections by employing numerous methods? It is also important to make a distinction between the ideal situation (theory) and actual situation(practice).

During the monarchical times in Sri Lanka, the power was exercised by the King and his close affiliates from the royal administration including Adigars, Provincial chiefs,  etc. Though power was inherited by family lineage, the history is full of stories about conflicts and wars between father and son, siblings in the same family. Sigiriya (fortress Kingdom) reminds us about the famous conflict between two brothers for power. During monarchical times, agriculture and trade as well as religion formed the backbone of society. The craftsmen engaged in various crafts and villages were expected to provide part of their produce to the royal palace.  In terms of social organisation, caste was an important factor. Ralph Pieris in his book describes in detail the Social Organisation in the Kandyan areas showing the importance of historical sociology for reconstructing the lost past by analysing historical records.  Morality and moral principles formed an important part of administering justice.  A King was supposed to rule according the Dasaraja Dharma (Ten principles of just rule). Buddhist monks were considered as guardians of the moral order with the support of Buddhist Kings (with the exception of Nayakkar period in late Kandyan period and a few others).  Thus, we can see how the moral order was as important as the material order at the time. 

With the onset of colonialism and the introduction of alien ways, values and norms, laws, principles and practices the situation that existed before changed significantly. Gananath Obeyesekere through his research shows how the tattumaru system that existed in paddy cultivation – based on fairness to owners of paddy land – gave way to private ownership leading to the fragmentation of land. He also shows how individuals who bought such fragmented land became absentee landlords or rich landowners. Research by Michael Roberts shows how motivated individuals and families used trading and business opportunities during the colonial period increased their wealth and status to become elites. Entry of some individuals to professions accelerated this process (for more on this see Nissan 1987). When the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British and came under colonial government since 1815, the area under former Kingdom was opened up for business, plantations and migration. There was a boom in construction activity and many low country people migrated to Kandyan area in search of economic and other opportunities. If we look at the traders in Kandy and their family histories, we can find interesting details about this process including the history of pioneers. I know of several such families who migrated and settled into life in Kandyan areas after marriage to local ladies. 

Even in the low country areas, those who associated with the colonial administration in various roles starting from being a mudaliar or a peon at the Kachcheri or the courts, assumed social significance in the eyes of the residents. This was because they had access to centres of power in one form or another. This is a critical factor when we are trying to understand and interpret human social behaviour at critical times like elections and after. Closeness of an individual or a family to centres of power plays an important role in shaping people’s attitudes and behaviour including voting behaviour. This is particularly so when it comes to the middle and lower classes and those living in rural and remote areas. If one can establish a relationship with power figures (or potential power figures), it is not only an aspiration but also something that opens avenues of material gain in one form or another. Majority of residents in an area do not establish such links however. Their plight is another factor requiring a different discussion later. Contrary to popular belief, many politicians who contest elections are somebodies with power, wealth and status already. This is because they or their ancestors have held office in the parliament or other important roles in government for generations. Thus, they have accumulated political and social capital. In the process, they also accumulate economic capital. 

As Sri Lankans have been accustomed to looking at significant others for leadership and their attitudes and perceptions about leadership contenders are coloured by their past actions and status, this makes the task of those appearing on behalf of alternative political forces all the more difficult. This is because the voters not only look at the message but also the person. Person is not removed from the rest of society. Persons are very much social and political animals. In a society where the display of power, wealth and status through elaborate wedding ceremonies, material possessions, crowd power, closeness to power centres, and even underworld power plays a significant role in shaping attitudes, individuals from established families gain an upper hand compared to those from less well to do families especially in terms of handling government (Central and provincial) machinery and civic forces at the grassroots level. In such a context however, all is not lost for those seeking change. When I mention change I do not mean the tattumaru system in the political context between mainstream parties and their affiliates. Social change has been a subject that was the focus of anthropological studies in Sri Lanka starting from the 1950s (see Nissan 1987). At the time village in transition and how to get a better understanding about it in terms of methodology of research became a hot topic i.e. fieldwork, ethnography, surveys. Even among those who studied Vedda community, this was the case. 

If colonialism introduced changes to the country’s economy, polity, law, education and religion, the post 1977 changes under the label Open Economy and Just Society introduced even more drastic changes impacting on the social fabric. Take for instance the ability of women from the villages and suburbs to migrate for work OR the ability of young men and women to work in factories in Free Trade Zones. To my knowledge no significant studies have been conducted about the social impact of such endeavours including the impact on the moral order of society in terms of families. Creating income earning avenues of any sort in the country and outside can have critical effects on the family, religious conviction, community and ultimately personal behaviour. Going after material wealth including an income anyhow seems to be the name of the game today.  In the process morality takes a second priority. The tragedy is that unless a strong moral order based on spirituality and social justice principles act as the guardian of society and its economy as in the monarchical times, societies are doomed to face collapse of one kind or another. This is the story of modern times under neoliberal economics and the multiplication of power centres in the name of representative democracy to accumulate wealth and status.  Accountability of elected members to govern the country to the people and their own conscience (if any) is at a low level all over.

In the past, sociological and anthropological studies revealed what’s going on in villages and cities in the face of social changes (embracing various sectors) so that the graduates and those with an enlightened mind and curiosity were able to grasp the reality beyond mere opinion or hearsay. This tradition has not extended to the political field though there are rare works by sociologists like Jonathan Spencer and late Ranaweera Banda exploring the economic and political changes at rural society. Such studies actually link findings with a developed conceptual framework or frameworks in the field of sociology and anthropology rather than mere data gathering and analysing exercises without much underlying meaning. 

The failure of current generation of sociologists and anthropologists in the country to contribute to discourses dealing with power, morality, material wealth accumulation and exploitation of mind and body for such accumulations is one modern curse inflicted on the forward march of society. Time has come to critically look at persons and their backgrounds contesting elections through the prism of their wealth, status and party/family power as well as desired social change though the message is more important than the person advocating the power. Unfortunately, in the contest between the message and the messenger, it is highly likely the messenger will be the winner than the message. This will highlight the failure of education, and the essential role of moral advocates who have to fight an uphill battel to preserve some sanity in a system that has been corroded beyond repair.

Further Readings

Jiggins, J. 1979. Caste and Family Politics of the Sinhalese 1947-1976, Cambridge University Press.

Nissan, E. 1987. The Work of Sri Lankan Anthropologists: A bibliographic Survey, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 21(1).

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Latest comments

  • 5

    ‘Time has come to critically look at persons and their backgrounds contesting elections . . . .’

    Fat chance of that happening at this late juncture. The political milieu is so deeply entrenched in greed and self-aggrandisement that chances of any any political leader trying to clear our rotten stables has become a pipe dream. Only a revolution and a dictatorship will do!

    • 2

      Spring Koha ,

      Srilanka can never stand up through a revolution or dictatorship .
      Force-fed prosperity doesn’t last and we saw it in Libya and
      Iraq . Saudis are longing for more freedom than wealth and we saw
      instances where some important Saudi girls escaped to the West
      to live in freedom . The trouble we have is we don’t know that we
      are a blessed country in many ways than solid cash flow ! Why
      don’t we see for instance that we have water resources and the
      wealthy Arabs don’t have it ? Why can’t we learn to live within
      our limits ? Why do we rush to borrow prosperity at a cost we can’t
      afford ? Why do we hesitate to call it GREED ? We are either beggars
      or greedy because this is what these main candidates offer us ! And
      we are now talking about them ! In a real world , people must loudly
      say no to the name Rajapaksha simply because they haven’t cleared
      their names from courts . S L P P should have put forward an
      uncontroversial candidate , win or lose ! Evidence is abundant how
      they will behave in power ! S L P P is a bunch of arrogant lot who don’t
      care for public sentiments . Their card on the table is the racist vote
      base that voted them in the last elections . That is what Gotabaya
      candidacy speaks of ! Gotabaya is not known for anything else ! And
      this is not my vouch for Sajith either !

      • 2

        If one looks at human history ………. there was, is, and always be “moral” expediency. ………. Similar to driving on Lankan roads: a classic example. :))

        “morality” is a “tool” used by the weak to play “games” in the minds of the strong to gain a measure of “equality.”

        A form of trickery ……….. that separates man from the rest of the animals.

        Native Veddha from nimal fernando. :))

        • 2

          Exactly how, when, and where did “morality” come into human consciousness?

          As humans – especially Lankans – are a very touchy subject …… let’s consider a strong elephant (I wanted to use a lion, then a tiger ……. but had to leave them out as each can offend a particular segment ) in the jungle ……. how would “morality” enter it’s consciousness?

          Would it figure out for itself ………. or would other weaker elephants get around him and force “morality” on him? …….. So as not to lose their food, wives, daughters …….. to him?

          Without “morality,” the strongest would have had the best of everything.

          Should we approach this from top down ……. or bottom up? ……… Native, what say ye?

        • 2

          Even animals do have there own system of norms may be in rudimentary forms compared to what is seen in much more complex human civilizations. Elephants & apes are very good examples. Norms are essential component of all socially organized communities. Like anything else, it also could be manipulated for cheating. Farmers usually offer best meal from the first harvest to Buddha, gods & to the monk with the expectation of better harvest in the next season. Similar idea exists in farmers offering gifts to feudal chiefs: No harm at minimum!

      • 2

        Along with the immeasurable greed, we have become highly individualistic and self serving. Have lost moral and social consciousness(look at how we treat the sick and elderly now?). Colonial mindset continues among the somebodies(Look at how we address those in authority as Sir and Madam). A subservient nation has been constructed by the very political and beaureacratic culture? This affects the younger generation more e.g. when they come out for education, migration and work in other countries we can observe the difference in personality.

  • 2

    Why the messenger will be the winner than the message is a flaw in our culture
    As the concepts of feudal utopianism and alien democracy is both at play
    So, instead of the actual empowerment of the citizen, they empower dynasties.

    The primordial ingroup-outgroup behaviour has been a factor
    So much so that the prism of intellect morality has also been infected
    Even the said religious guardians exercise this, in contradiction.

    The reason for the failure of education and even the ‘moral advocates’ is this
    They are a product of that culture and so is their ‘intellect’.
    Self colonialism is more dangerous than foreign colonialism, then again we were once foreigners

  • 5

    “Power, Wealth & Status Without Morality: A Modern Curse”
    Siri Gamage’
    How true!

  • 4

    Hmm…food for thought..Colonialism has caused upheavals I guess. Any how, we need morality and equality to be promoted at all levels of governance, to have any chance for society as a whole to change for the better

  • 6

    While reading the above, it came to my mind a ” truth or you could call it as cleverness of our Srilankans ” which I share here for the benefit of those who haven’t read it already:

    American President wanted to paint the White House. He called for quotations. Chinese guy quoted three million. European guy quoted seven million. Srilankan guy quoted ten million.

    Trump asked Chinese guy – how did you quote three million? He replied : one million for paint one million for labour and one million profit.

    Trump asked the European guy. He replied three million for paint two million for labour and two million profit.

    Trump asked Srilankan guy. He replied four million for you,three million for me, and we will give three million to the Chinese guy and ask him to paint!

    Order bagged by Srilankan.

  • 5

    Freedom is an illusion. Real freedom is not self-will but the conquest of self-will.
    In a world of greed, democracy is a great tool for possessing worldly material.
    It was introduced by the capitalist society in the 17th century to eliminate natural leaders who embraced morality.
    Karl Marx became stateless for rebelling against it in the 19th century.
    In a world where money controls almost every thing and where the new religion is sex, it’s pointless to fight against democracy.
    All we could do is use the system to be successful and help people in the best way you can.

    • 2

      Along with other liberating forces and institutions, democracy has also been corrupted. We tend to talk about corruption in terms of individuals but not as institutions? If we do, we may find interesting facts about the direction of society.

  • 3

    Sri Lanka is ‘hopefully’ an evolving system towards democracy with social justice whatever the setbacks that we have experienced in the past, or would encounter in the future. The use of power without morality and the use of immoral means to achieve power undoubtedly are crucial problems. Power is used for wealth, status and power itself. Yes, to an extent the country may get inspirations from a ‘glorious past’ imagined or actual i.e. Dasaraja Dharma etc. However, most of our problems are modern. The modern equivalent of Dasaraja Dharma could be Human Rights.

    The use of power for status comes mainly from our ancient society, based on caste and hierarchy. That is why women are largely excluded. The use power for wealth is mainly modern and capitalist, has become endemic after the open economy. The presidential system only an accompaniment. The connection between money, power and elections is also rooted in the electoral system and faulty election laws. These have to be changed. A change can come from ideas. The purpose of politics should not be perceived as power, but for public service. Political Science is also not the ‘science of political power,’ but the science of public policy and public service.

    Power is also used for ethnic/religious control, hegemony or counter/alternative hegemony. Vote is also used for the same purposes on all sides. These are crucial issues at the present election directly and indirectly. This power game also should be changed. How to change is a long story. People may differ, but discussions are necessary. Thanks Siri for initiating a discussion. Can we have some morals on all sides? What could they be?

    • 1

      Morality has to apply to those who gain and exercise power including elected politicians ,beaureacrats, technocrats, professionals. Moral principles, norms,ethics etc. has to be inculcated in people before they become corrupt adults. We need to have a critical look at moral foundations of society including religions, education, traditions and customs, etiquette, etc. and examine what sustains a good individual in the face of corrupting influences? Our people have become ‘opportunistic'(Avasthavadeen). A recent Aluth Parlimentuwa program discussed this topic. ‘Centralisation of leadership’ in the hands of politicians is part of the modern curse. We have to recognise apolitical leaders in society at all levels. Their hands need to be strengthened rather than weakening.

      • 1

        More than anything else, it is technology that improves people’s lives at the end. What religion,philosophy, and politics could not achieve in 2000 years, something like the transistor achieved in 50 years. The best hope for humanity is that technology becomes so efficient to the point where the distribution of wealth becomes much more equitable and people can survive with minimal conflict and stress. In other words, the hope is that most of the present dilemas we see in politics and everyday human life can be resolved through the use of AI (artifical intelligence) combined with something along the lines of universal basic income (UBI) to placate the masses. 

  • 1

    Siri Gamage,
    I don’t think that there is any argument about your final conclusion that the need to have a thorough look at the background of elected officials but, with due respect, I must disagree with your analysis of social change leading to a moral decadence you think has taken place. Your argument that, unlike today where social order if defined by success in competitive gains, social order was much more moral as they followed religious guidelines.

    I believe that such a conclusion is based more on common nostalgia for the past than by analysis of facts. Yes, it is true that, in old days, religion played a huge part but, despite the addition of a few atheist and agnostics in modern time, I have serious doubts as to the decrease of effect of religion in peoples’ lives. May be the prominent role the local monk played may no longer exists but not the beliefs in religion. So, the most fundamental question is whether the change of feudal social system to democratic system (I don’t use the common but meaningless term neoliberal. Capitalism or neoliberalism are inevitable outcome of freedom under democracy) brought a moral decadence into SL social system.

    My answer is emphatic NO! People in SL may not have considered paying dues for the local temple as an unnecessary burden but the administrative system was an inescapable permanent burden that brought constant fear if not complied irrespective of the fairness.; women were just toys of the feudal landlords; one wrong word or move would be enough for punishment; and so on. This was the situation in the countryside even during my own childhood. The technical term in sociology for the social relation under such system is “patron-client” (It is this patron-client relationship that has been transformed into a dependency on politicians).


    • 1

      I believe that the old patron-client system still plays strong role in human mind but in different forms. It probably in human instinct as inherited trait from our evolutionary past of living under an ordered social system. Perhaps, it may show up more in the behavior among poor and remote villagers still. In rural areas in particular, where people are helpless against the power of police & local thugs, people have no choice but to organize their life on favoritism. This may have a big impact in voters of lower economic class to prefer politicians who already have power. For them, having a strongman on the their side may felt like winning the blessings of a god. However, once the public begins to achieve economic freedom, this tendency also will wither away proportionately. If this change to hasten, SL needs a reliable investigative reporting. The current media system is extremely unreliable b’cos it is biased & exaggerated.

      I don’t believe that the so-called “curse for all” neoliberlaism has anything to with current issues. For example, I know for certain that the Thattu Maru system of rice cultivation has noting to do with competitive land ownership; rather it is a system “still in practice” developed to avoid fragmentation due to increase in family number. What is wrong is not the competition created by the freedom under democracy; rather, it is the human nature to abuse of systems that are designed to be fair & just. I think that SL is moving in right direction and only the public attitudes are holding the nation back!

      Immorality is synonymous with power & wealth in all social systems throughout the human history. Only the the HR under democracy, it can be kept under control!

      • 1

        Dear D.P.
        Thanks for disagreeing with my contention and presenting a counter argument. This is essential for a disciplined dialogue on any matter(In fact I used to teach this to students at the university who would become teachers in Australia). You say,

        ‘I have serious doubts as to the decrease of effect of religion in peoples’ lives. May be the prominent role the local monk played may no longer exists but not the beliefs in religion. So, the most fundamental question is whether the change of feudal social system to democratic system (I don’t use the common but meaningless term neoliberal. Capitalism or neoliberalism are inevitable outcome of freedom under democracy) brought a moral decadence into SL social system’.

        If this is so, why was there an Amadyapa Vyaparaya during late colonial period/time of independence? Why did Anagarika Dharmapala campaigned against decadent habit of the Sinhalese Buddhists? Why was there a need for the Sri Lanka Theosophical society to promote Buddhist education? I can go on.

        While agreeing with the idea that some institutions brought by the colonialists including liberal political thought, modern education, legal system had a progressive slant, it is an undeniable fact that with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, there was a breakdown of the moral order at all levels. In the case of the Sinhalese, moral order was maintained by Buddhist monks and lay leaders but this institution itself was subjected to decay due to lack of state patronage. ( read the work of Kitsiri Malalgoda etc). Buddhist monks who are supposed to maintain moral order at the national-local levels, have become dangerously politicised giving rise to political Buddhism. So has the teaching profession(not to mention about university academics and administrations). All the vices are encapsulating the body and minds.e.g. alcoholism,crimes, drugs, corruption. was and institutions that are supposed to protect the public no longer do this. Adults have lost their authority in the face of so called modernisation and globalisation(Americanisation and now sinisation). By now A question mark has arisen as to who maintains the moral order and how? This applies to the behaviour of all including politicians,professionals,monks,pradesheeya Sabha members, and so on.

        In short, modern institutions had some liberalisation elements but as they became more and more corrupt and local, along with other social changes(massification of education, politics and religion),they have lost their liberal character. Instead they have become more oppressive. In the process, one can observe a decline in the traditional morality. It has not been replaced by another more liberating morality.Not even a liberating theology has taken root. Therefore, what we need to take the country forward from the current mess and moral decadence is not another political leader(old wine in new bottles) but a moral leader/s who(a) understand the situation, (b) propose a liberating philosophy and action plan. (One small example is Kandula programs run by brother Charles)

        • 0

          As I mentioned above, the main theme in essay seems to incoherent common nostalgia for the past. It appears that you are invoking even contradictory claims in support of the argument. Therefore, I decided to pick only one to discus within limited space allowed! It is the rise of individualism over altruism (in your reply to Laksiri).

          This ai an old argument that goes all the way back to Darwin. He found it hard to explain altruism within his explanation of competition as the main (but not the only; cooperation also played a role) driver of evolution. Therefore, he came up with explanation of whole community, Hymenoptera in particular, acting as one single organism. When it came to humans, he limited only to the uncivilized! But, Russian evolutionists like Peter Kropotkin argued for sense of community as general traits based on there experience on communities in harsh environment like conditions in Siberia. But I believe the both side missed the target; that both arguments are two sides of the same coin: & that human behavior contains both traits.

          We act together when feel threaten against common interest but once the threat is gone individuality takes over. The Individuality appears dominant in modern societies b’cos we longer live in fear of constant fear of outside threats. In SL, we see the same change of behavior with occasional acts of altruism as in the case Tamils vs SB and S/B vs Muslims. Party politics also can be put in the same category. In other words, today humans are free to express individuality more often. they no longer are bounded by old bond whatever they may have been.

          As an atheist, I don’t have much respect for religions. I believe that social values based on religion are no different from scaring off children with “Billas” b’cos they are nothing but myths.

  • 1

    Its been a long journey since 1956 – the year that defined the downfall of Sri Lanka. SWRD’s main objective was to break the stranglehold that the Colombo educated elite had on politics. Prior to 1956, Sinhala-only speaking villagers or Tamil-only speaking villagers had no chance of entering politics. It was pretty much a Colombo boys club who came from elite schools like Royal, S.Thomas, Trinity and to a lesser extend Ananda, Nalanda, St. Peters and S.Josephs. Though the products of these schools came from diverse political backgrounds they still had one common thread, and that was they were ‘Westernized’ and they subscribed certain values that were alien to village folk. While the village folk too had good qualities in them they were not intellectually equipped to handle the complexities governance.
    Starting in 1956 the ‘Common Man’ started entering parliament. However he did not come empty handed. He brought with him a set of cultural values that were familiar to him. With the disastrous Swabasha policy gaining traction over the years they became the dominant group while the elite gradually retreated. MR is in essence SWRD’s dream child; a village politician with village values being the head of the country. However despite their dominance in society and politics they still have not been able to buy one thing – and that’s know as Class. Sadly its too late now. The once model democracy is now a housemaid exporting nation that’s ranked 84th in the world.

  • 2

    In Sri Lanka, since Independence, the “MESSENGER” has always been the “EXPLOITER”, in that, the “MESSAGE” has been drafted to “DUPE” the “Receiver”. In the olden days, “KINGS” ruled on the Principles of “Dasa Rajah Dharma” with the “Advisory” role handled by the “Clergy”, the writer says. In today’s context, the “King” does “NOT KNOW” the simple “Dharma” written into the Constitution of the country. That we saw in play on “26th October 2018”. Then what was the “Role” played by the “Clergy”? They walked into the “New Kings” court and “Blessed” him with recital of “Pirith” and “Decorated” the wrist with “Pirith Nool”. Even recently, such a “Most Venerable” declared that the “Nominated King” to be is a “BODHISATHWA”. Another such, “Most Venerable” and a “Mahachariya” said: “When you look at the “Deposed King”, his face reminds him of a “Buddha”. Don’t you see here that, a NEW “Rajah Dharma” has been written and that “Clergy” has been declared to replace the “Raja Wasala Kavataya” – the famous, “Andare”, with the sole purpose of “EXPLOITATION” of the “Receiver” of the “MESSAGE”. The “MESSENGER” and his “COHORTS” are doing well.

  • 0

    The problem is not democracy, but the remnants of feudalism in our democracy
    The issue that it is ‘alien’ troubles many, because they are not honest in dealing with that topic regarding our own history
    The issue is less about morality, morality is subjective and dynamic, and immorality had also prevailed in our society, it is more about our primitive attachments of ingroup-outgroup mentality.

    (Anagarika Dharmapala too displayed this with his ‘Aryan supremacy’ preaching. Buddhist education replaced the Christian element in the delimitation of then modern, alien and scientific subjects.
    Not only Sri Lankans, but the world would otherwise resort bac to the gem of feudalism, in some parts of the Islamic world, they had taken that initiative)

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